At a time when many parts of the world are living in fear of a war in
Iraq and the possibility of terrorist attacks, the question of which fears
are appropriate and which are inappropriate is a very real issue. However,
I am concerned with the same question that arises more routinely in the
reporting of homicide in newspapers throughout the world. Newspapers are
essentially in the business of selling newspapers. While they proclaim
that they try to highlight issues in a responsible way, some newspapers
are increasingly becoming instruments of ghoulish entertainment and
manufactured hysteria. Elections are a time when "law-and-order"
issues tend to come to the fore and there is even a greater danger of
distortion and misrepresentation.
In the United Kingdom there has been increasing concern over the role
of the media in criminal cases, particularly those of homicide. In fact,
there is a dearth of information about the situation in the United Kingdom
and we wanted to try to rectify this by studying several national
newspapers over a period of time. Hence, our research focuses on homicide
- which includes both murder and manslaughter. While there is a local
market for homicides - some types of murders interest local readers more
than others - there are some important lessons to be drawn from our work
that are almost certainly relevant in the Australian context.
In brief, we have to recognise that the media has an important role in
the public's general knowledge of homicide but our research suggests that
the public is learning the wrong lessons.
First, of course, I need to acknowledge that some of this has been said
before, especially by researchers in the United States. The extra
ingredient in our work is that we have compared what is reported
in newspapers with the actual number of homicides that have been
committed. This is important because it enables us to identify the
distortion that occurs. The nature of the distortion is of two kinds.
News coverage can endorse the invisibility of certain groups (in
other words, the lack of interest in their murders may reinforce
the belief, among other members of these groups, that they are not
regarded as full citizens) and can enhance the visibility of other
groups (the solving of some crimes becomes much more important than
So where does our evidence come from? We looked at the reporting of
homicide cases in three national daily and three Sunday newspapers - The
Times and Sunday Times
("broadsheet"); the Daily
Mail and Mail On Sunday
("middle-brow") and the Daily
Mirror and Sunday Mirror
("tabloid") - for a five-year period in the 1990s. For The
Times and the Sunday Times - regarded as the paper of record -
we also took a 23-year period (1977-1999 inclusive) to consider changes
over time. This latter part of the study produced some dramatic results.
Out of a total of more than 15,000 stories, just 13 homicide cases
contributed 2,860 of these stories. Thus, a sizeable amount of news space
was devoted to these top cases. The cases tended to be the sensational
ones involving children or young women being killed by strangers. These
are the cases that are raising fears among the populace. However, these
fears are inappropriate because, thankfully, few children and few women
do, indeed, get killed by strangers. In contrast, domestic killings and
acquaintance killings (particularly of young males by young males) should
be exercising our concern much more than is reflected in the newspaper
coverage. In other words, in our national newspapers the focus is largely
on the killing of young women or children by strangers.
The detailed study of the reporting of homicide in three national
newspapers over a five-year period and comparing them with Home Office
figures for homicide officially recorded produced some startling
discoveries. The official figures identified 2,685 homicide cases, of
which 1,068 (38 per cent) were reported in at least one of the newspapers
in the study. Of the 1,068 cases covered, only 376 appeared in all three
newspapers, contrasting with 452 cases reported in only one of the three
newspapers studied. It is clear that cases do not have an equal chance of
being reported, and up to 12 factors influence whether they are likely to
Motive and circumstances were the most important factors. Stories with
a sexual motive were the most likely to be reported (around 70 per cent in
each newspaper), followed by cases with a robbery or theft motive and
cases which appeared to be irrational acts (both between 35 per cent and
40 per cent). Other important factors included the number of victims,
their age and that of the suspect, the method of killing and whether a
homicide involved a female victim.
Homicides where the youngest victim was aged between four and 12 had
the highest chance of being reported. Those involving victims between 31
and 40 had the lowest. Surprisingly, homicides of babies and infants under
three were also much less likely to be reported.
Different newspapers have their idiosyncrasies. The Times was
more likely than the Mail or Mirror to report gun homicides.
The Mail was least likely to report homicides where there was a
homosexual relationship between victim and suspect, and the Mirror
most likely to report arson.
In short, we found that a minority of homicides are reported, that
different newspapers cover different cases, and there is a substantial
bias in the type of cases published.
The variation between the reporting of different national newspapers
was unexpected. However, of course, all newspapers were attracted to
reporting the unusual stories. So, while there is a core of similarity,
each newspaper is developing a particular prism for its readers - overall,
however, the readers are developing a view that bears little resemblance
So what to do about it? Is this just another saga of media-bashing? I
think not. There are lessons to be learned. Some parts of the media are
better than others. While our local and regional newspapers were not part
of this study, their coverage seems much more balanced - most murders in a
local area are likely to be covered by a local newspaper. Fears will be
raised by newspaper reporting but they are perhaps more proportional to
the threat. In contrast, the concern about our national newspapers in
Britain is that they can be a source of a nationally manufactured
hysteria. They sometimes raise and sustain inappropriate fears.
However, what's the problem if most people have a more measured diet of
homicide reporting from their local newspapers? The danger, of course, is
that politicians at Westminster tend to construct their political agenda
from reading the national newspapers and not the local newspapers. This
affects the working of the justice system. Police resources are
increasingly being driven by implicit and explicit media demands. The
police are being pushed to focus disproportionately on certain social
groups. At an election time we always need to be aware of the danger that
the media may not always have all our interests in mind.
The author wishes to express his gratitude to the Home Office for allowing
use of the Homicide Index. Thanks also to the ESRC who funded the research
project ('Homicide and the Media', R000 22 3061) and to colleagues,
Elizabeth Ackerley, Brian Francis, Jayn Pearson and Moira Peelo.